The left turn of musicOne cannot help but admire how politics has chosen to express itself in Nepal: through music
Gaun gaun baata utha, basti basti baata utha. Yo desh ko muhaar, ferna laai utha.” (Wake up people in villages and towns. Wake up to bring about change in this country.) “Koi ta bhane jahaaj maa harara, koi ta bhane pasinaa tarara, haamro Nepal maa.” (Some fly in planes while some sweat in the fields of Nepal.) I remember listening to these songs while watching the movie Balidan and being emotionally pumped up against the Panchayat regime. While, “Euta marera jaanchha, haami hajaara hunchhaun. Euta kutaai khaanchha, haami hajaar jutchhaun” (One is killed and we rise up in thousands. One is beaten up and we gather in thousands), made me root for the rebellion in the face of brutal Panchayati repression on the actors who were rebelling against the system in the movie. That is exactly what these protest songs were supposed to do: create an invincible affection for rebellion and loathing for the ills of society. Upon inquiring about these songs, I later discovered that most of the songs from the movie were created decades ago by a musical group called Ralfa.
The destiny of protest music in Nepal was written in golden letters with the inception of the Ralfa group in the mid-1960s. Ralfa had young, enthusiastic left wingers such as Raamesh, Raayan and Parijat. The group had been formed in the backdrop of Panchayat regime, which had taken away the budding Nepali democracy in 1960. After its formation, many members of Ralfa worked together with the Coordination Committee in eastern Nepal, which was later to become CPN (Marxist-Leninist).
Before Ralfa, the history of protest songs in Nepal can be traced back to the Nepali Congress activism against the Rana regime. Noble they were in their own times but unfortunately, they are not remembered like the latter songs. It was only after the advent of the Panchayat regime, that protest music in Nepal really took off in an organised manner among the grassroots. Like Ralfa, JB Tuhure from Sankalpa Giti Abhiyan created waves with, “Aamaa-didi-baini ho, kati baschhau daasi vayi, sukha ko sadhai pyaasi banera?” (Mothers and sisters, how long will you live as slaves with a thirst for life’s pleasures?) His songs of crimes committed by society against women have resonated with many since ages.
After the reintroduction of democracy in 1990, Nepal was again plunged into another rebellion waged by the Maoists. Artists and writers like Mani Thapa, Khusiram Prakhin, Dhrub Gnyawali and Chunu Gurung formed a group called Saamanaa Saanskritik Samuha. Matching their militaristic revolutionary ideology, they had songs like: “Bairi ko killa-killa maa laddaa laddai, chhati maa laagera dhalekaa yoddhaa laai, yuddha ko maidaan baata haamro shraddhaanjali.” (Our condolences from the battlefield to the warriors who fell in battle with the enemy.) “Arun tarera naanaa, tamar tarera, aayaun haami birtaako gaathaa korera.” (Having crossed the rivers, Arun and Tamar, we have written a saga of bravery.)
The Maoist musical era would be incomplete without mentioning Raktim Pariwar. Though Raktim has been connected with CPN (Masaal), their songs are largely identified with the Maoist movement. With veteran singers like Jeevan Sharma, who also happens to be my personal favourite ‘janbaadi gaayak’ (people’s singer) in the group, they had moving songs about the rural poor and their difficult life: “Sukera jaadaina, rokera rokidaina. Bhaari khepne khetala ko, yahi ho jindagaani, jharana ko chiso paani.” (It doesn’t dry away, you can’t stop it. Like the ice-cold spring water, this is life for a land tiller.) “Shimali Chhayaa maa basi, bhariya laamo saas fereko. Umer vayisakyo asi, thul-thulaa dukkha le ghereko” (Sitting down in the shade of the Shimali tree, the porter heaves a sigh. He is already eighty but massive plights surround him.)
Similarly, the Maoist period came up with another strand of powerful challenges to the status quo by celebrating the marginalised communities of Nepal. I am not entirely sure if Saamanaa group produced the following song, nevertheless, it captures the Maoist narrative of empowering the aadivasi-janajati (indigenous) communities. “Purwa maa jay ho Kiraanti, Paschim maa Tamu-Magaraati. Yo belaa ghaam, chaarai dishaa dhaam, laage po chitta ghamaailo—desai ramaailo.” (Kiranti in the east, Tamu-Magaraati in the west. When the sun shines on the whole of Nepal, then that’s enjoyable.) This identity consciousness ignited by the Maoist movement was furthered by the Madhesh movements in subsequent years. The third Madhesh movement of 2015, reaching its peak by galvanising a huge section of the Madhesi population came up with its own anthem: “Laathi, paathaa leke ho ka taiyaar, Nepal abhi bande baa.” (Be prepared with sticks and canes, Nepal is now shut down.)
It does not always take a politically organised musical group to imagine a better future. Yash Kumar from the Dalit perspective sang in the 2000s to depict the caste-based discrimination, “Biraano yo mandirmaa, kunai diyo baldaina. Na aau mero saamu timi, maile chhoyeko paani chaldaina.” (In this desolate temple, candles are not kindled. Do not come near me, I am an untouchable.) Similarly, I recently listened to a band called Joint Family Internationale. Their songs seem to produce a fun-filled satirical environment rather than a heavy, heart aching criticism of the system. “Oho netaaji, balla paalnu bho. Bhudi hallaaudai, sattaa dhaalnu bho. Haatu thaaudai, guff ladaaunu bho. Sojhaa jantaa laai jhukyaaunubho, netaaji.” (Hello dear leader, you have just arrived. Shaking the pot belly, you have taken down the government. With grand gestures, you have given big talks. Dear leader, you have duped innocent people.)
Protest songs in Nepal have come in different eras, representing various political movements and have made distinct statements. While most of them were created by politically organised revolutionary groups, some also came out of individual singers and bands. Their contents, demands and issues may differ from one another. However, the common denominator of these songs is that they protest the present and many of them also dream of a different future. Regardless of one’s agreement with the politics advocated by these songs, one cannot help but admire the medium that politics has chosen to express itself: music.